Isa and I said goodbye in the morning, agreeing to stay in touch, and I got on my way. It was hard to leave the beautiful, restful Plenty Star Ranch and her. We'd grown so close in such a short amount of time.
I hoped to get to Sioux Falls today, despite the 7+-hour drive. On my way to I-90 East, I stopped in Hot Springs, not too far from Plenty Star, to get some gas and eat the rest of my buffalo sandwich for breakfast. It was also pretty chilly and humid (humidity! Will my California drought-induced wrinkles vanish now?), so I went into a thrift store called Junk & Disorderly and emerged with a soft blue-and-green plaid shirt with silver thread in it for a buck. Pretty snazzy, I thought.
I also had to use a bathroom all of a sudden. Looking around, I noticed a bar called Frankie's Place and walked in. About a dozen guys in a boisterous knot by the door stopped talking and stared at me. There was silence except for the country music coming from the speakers. One of them finally said, "Hey, how you doin'?" He seemed to really want to know. There was a darts match going on, and as I responded, one fellow hit the bullseye. Then they all invited me in at once, but I protested I didn't want to get in the way of the dart-thrower, who was obviously on a roll. One of the guys said, "Aw, don't mind him, he does this all day." They ushered me in away from the door and gradually went back to their business.
I asked the bartender, a cheerful-looking, petite woman with long, gray hair and a black t-shirt, if I could use their bathroom. She answered, "Of course, honey! Down there past the pool table on your right." It was perhaps one of the cleanest bathrooms I've seen yet on this trip. On my way out, one of the men at the bar was coming back in from a smoke. Tall, gangly, and tan, with a few tattoos and sporting a neon headband to hold back his unruly shock of bleached-blond-and-brown hair, he asked me, "Hey, you headed toward Cali?" I explained I was driving the other direction, to Maine, and he paused to consider that. "Wow, that's a helluva drive. You watch out for the weather, now, OK?" I agreed I would and got back on the main road.
Outside of town, the land began to remind me of my long treks through the Lake District of Scotland back in the 80s when I spent a year at King's College in London. Except they don't have buffaloes there, at all. I passed small herds of the animals, many lying down, some standing with calves nursing. As I-90 East rolled by, I came upon billboards by Passiton.com saying encouraging things about being civil to one another and standing together as a nation. Good, I thought. That's good.
And then I saw a sign declaring that the speed limit was 80mph. I mean, what? There was even a minimum posted speed, for God's sake! Finally, I'd discovered a place that had comes to its senses about driving! Yes, South Dakota officially became my favorite state at that moment, as if everything else hadn't been enough. Frequent signs warned slower drivers to stay right. I opened the Mini up a bit and cruised around 85mph (hey, you gotta go a little faster than they say, right?). The miles flashed by. I killed bugs, thousands of them, at an astounding rate as I passed through the fertile Badlands. (Sorry again, bugs!)
Somewhere around three hours into the drive, there started to be signs for something called Wall Drugs. Using the same brilliant marketing ploy that had sucked me into visiting The Biggest Meteor Impact Site in the United States back in Arizona, I now felt myself succumbing again to the pull of the signs. They seemed to be hand-painted and popped up every mile or two in this gorgeous but otherwise unremarkable landscape of hills, ponds, meadows, and massive rolls of fresh-cut hay lying at intervals in the fields.
The signs promised a wide and seemingly inexhaustible range of delights: five-cent coffee, free "donuts" for honeymooners, Levis, gold digging, and homemade pies. One even said "Be yourself!" I approved. But what really got me were the last two signs, which featured drawings of "the new dinosaur" (there were old ones??) and a "shootin' gallery." Well, now I had to go.
I carefully followed the signs to this "American icon," breathless by now with anticipation. Three colossal silos stood like guards opposite the fabled Wall Drug and I found myself in a parking lot with about 800 other tourists in buses and cars and on foot. Dammit, I thought. I fell for it. Well, here I was, so I walked with everyone else toward the sprawling compound of shops, cafes, and amusements that make up most of the town of Wall, South Dakota.
Although I felt a little pressed for time, I walked around with the rest of the million people. It's kind of like Las Vegas, where they funnel you from shop to shop, all connected within what's essentially a Great American Mall. Trinkets and touristy junk made up most of the merchandise, although there was a cool shop featuring the history of the original Wall Drug apothecary. I thought of buying gifts for my nephews in Maine, but was starting to lose my mind with the crowds and sensory overload, so I paid four bucks for a strong Americano (the girl who made it said the five-cent coffee is worth just that), and started to leave. Cisco called just then, so I sat and talked with him for a bit, a miniature gold-mining town with a waterfall at my back and gruesome photos of all the wolves, bears, cougars, and other poor creatures our pioneering ancestors massacred back in the day. As we were talking, the "new dinosaur" at the end of the hall let loose a roar in a very lifelike fashion, scattering shrieking children whose camera-bearing parents had positioned them under the monster for just this purpose. "Holy shit!" Cisco said in the phone. "What the hell was that?"
I got back on I-90 and kept driving. Sioux Falls still lay four hours east, and the sky ahead was turning a decidedly threatening shade of dark purple, with lighter rain clouds skirting the storm front. I decided to call it at around 7:30 when I came upon a town called Oacomo (pronounced without the "a"). Lightning flashed not too far away and the humidity had built up substantially. I pulled in to a Conoco to fill up the Mini again and wash the poor bugs off the nearly opaque, gooey windshield. It felt like the car needed some oil (the stupid, cool-looking dipstick gives no real indication), so I pulled off to the side and added a quart of oil to the steaming engine. A bearded old guy in a beat-up blue V8 pickup cruised by and asked if I was OK. I said, yeah, thanks, and he gave me a thumbs up as he roared off to the west.
By the time I checked into my hotel, the sky looked like it was going to just drop on everyone. It was apocalyptic. Lightning flashed closer now. I found a place that might keep Mini safe from hailstones and went up to my room. Checking the local radar, I found this:
But I'll tell you what--it hasn't changed a damn bit since. It's 2AM now and lightning and thunder are still over there rocking the Rosebud Indian Reservation 25 miles to the west. We've had few sprinkles here at the hotel. I could totally have camped.